In search of a definition

Exhibit: Hoping to play a greater role in the art world, the Walters Art Museum plans an elaborate display -- complete with a rock climber, four video cameras and 252 replicas of artifacts.

November 04, 2001|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The looming concrete exterior that frames the Walters Art Museum contrasts grimly with the delicate Monets and other impressionist art displayed inside. No one would call this bleak surface art.

But today, an artist and an athlete are planning to stage an adventurous and ephemeral piece of action on that stark wall with the aim of turning the museum in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood inside out.

The Centre Street museum's facade has been transformed into a rock-climbing surface with orange grips molded from some of the museum's artifacts.

A climber will scale the surface with video cameras strapped to his arms and legs to record his every move. He will wear black shoes, black shorts and - depending on the weather - he might take off his shirt.

"You'll see the hands and feet slowly caressing and touching these objects," said artist Dennis Adams, referring to the film that will later be played on four monitors in the museum. "You'll never see the climber himself, other than his limbs - it's too bad, he's very beautiful."

This is art - public art, more specifically.

The exhibit is part of "Facing Museums," a joint effort of the Walters Art Museum and the nearby Contemporary Museum that invites artists to respond to the Walters' collections in hopes of reaching a wider audience and engaging the public in a dialogue about art.

"To be a significant museum in the national scene, we need to be involved in the process of defining what art is in the 21st century," said Gary Vikan, director of the Walters. "At the same time, I think that process of helping to clarify and define what art is, it will help us to understand what art was in the past."

Kalvin Evans, a 29-year-old rock climber from Columbia, will scale the Walters' 1974 fortress-like building at 2 p.m. today.

The bright-orange climbing grips were constructed from small objects in the museum's collection that were cast with resin into hand and foot grips. Seven objects - including a plate, an incense burner, a vase and a hippopotamus - are wedged into the wall 36 times each, resulting in 252 climbing grips.

The museum commissioned Adams, from New York, to breathe life into the wall. He said the exhibit brings the art pieces full circle - they are taken out of the museum, put on the wall, "recontextualized" through the climb and then brought back into the museum in the film. The grips and the video will be on display at the museum until mid-January.

Evans, a former Air Force sergeant who has been a rock climber since last year, didn't know what to think of the idea at first.

"I was like, well, if they just want me to climb on the wall, that's fine," he said.

But after meeting with Adams, Evans became enthralled with the idea of being part of a live art exhibit and hopes to spread a positive influence as an African-American man.

"I just think it's cool that as a representative of not only rock climbing but of African-American males, you get to be a positive role model," he said. "You don't hear about too many things like this - it promotes not only a healthy lifestyle, but an active lifestyle."

Evans has been practicing for the exhibit at Earth Treks Climbing Center in Columbia, which is consulting on the rock-climbing aspect of the exhibit. He also keeps in shape by teaching "boot camp" style fitness camps.

"There are so many avenues that a person that keeps fit is able to enjoy," he said. "I don't believe a person should sit down and watch television all the time."

When the idea surfaced to make the museum wall a piece of art, Vikan envisioned a type of billboard on the 40-foot-tall, 80-foot- wide wall that he called "unarticulated."

Adams, a professor in the architecture department and director of the visual arts program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he hopes to "warm up" the wall by "turning the museum inside out."

"It looks more like a bunker, constructed in that brutalist architecture of the 1970s," Adams said. "It's concrete and very uninviting."

The public has noticed the change - the climbing grips were installed Thursday and have attracted many passers-by, prompting them to inquire about the exhibit.

"Every time someone walks down the street, they say, `What is this?'" said Jacqueline Copeland, director of education and public programs. "That's what art is supposed to be."

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